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11.9: Uses and Consequences of Nuclear Energy

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    Learning Objective
    • Know the benefits and consequences of nuclear energy.

    Nuclear Power Generation

    The generation of electricity is critical for operation of businesses, health care delivery, schools, homes, and other areas requiring the use of electrical power. According to 2011 statistics, coal is used for \(42\%\) of the total power generated, with natural gas being employed for another \(25\%\). Nuclear power plants are employed in about \(19\%\) of the cases, with renewable energy sources supplying the last \(13\%\). All of these fuels are used to heat water to generate steam. The steam then turns a turbine to generate electricity.

    Nuclear power plants use the energy from nuclear fission to produce electricity. U-235 is the preferred nuclear fuel because when its atoms are split (fissioned), they not only emit heat and high energy radiation but also enough neutrons to maintain a chain reaction and provide energy to power a nuclear power plant. Uranium is found in rocks all over the world but is relatively rare and the supply is finite making it a nonrenewable energy source.

    Uranium usually occurs in combination with small amounts of other elements and once it is mined, the U-235 must be extracted and processed before it can be used as a fuel in a nuclear power plant to generate electricity. The processed uranium is formed into fuel rods and then bundled into fuel assemblies. Fuel assemblies are stored onsite until they are needed by the reactor operators. At this stage, the uranium is only mildly radioactive, and essentially all radiation is contained within the metal tubes. When needed, the fuel is loaded into a reactor core (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). Typically, about one third of the reactor core (40 to 90 fuel assemblies) is changed out every 12 to 24 months.

    The most common type of reactors are the pressurized water reactors (PWR) (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)) in which water is pumped through the reactor core and heated by the fission process. The water is kept under high pressure inside the reactor so it does not boil. The heated water from the reactor passes through tubes inside the steam generator where the heat is transferred to water flowing around the tubes in the steam generator. The water in the steam generator boils and turns to steam. The steam is piped to the turbines. The force of the expanding steam drives the turbines, which spin a magnet in coil of wire – the generator– to produce electricity.

    After passing through the turbines, the steam is converted back to water by circulating it around tubes carrying cooling water in the condenser. The condensed steam – now water – is returned to the steam generators to repeat the cycle.

    The three water systems (condenser, steam generator, and reactor) are separate from each other and are not permitted to mix. Water in the reactor is radioactive and is contained within the containment structure whereas water in the steam generator and condenser is nonradioactive.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): A schematic diagram of a pressurized water reactor (PWR), the most common type of nuclear reactor. Diagram from Tennessee Valley Authority (public domain).

    Benefits of Nuclear Energy

    By using fission, nuclear power plants generate electricity without emitting air pollutants like those emitted by fossil fuel-fired power plants. This means that financial costs related to chronic health problems caused by air pollutants such as particulate material, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and ozone among others are significantly reduced. In addition nuclear reactors do not produce carbon dioxide while operating which means that nuclear energy does not contribute to the global warming problem.

    Another benefit of nuclear energy over fossil fuels especially coal is that uranium generates far more power per unit weight or volume. This means that less of it needs to be mined and consequently the damage to the landscapes is less especially when compared to the damage that results from coal mining such as mountaintop removal.

    Nuclear power is also used to propel ships. The turbine can be connected to a propeller system. The rotating turbine shaft will turn the propeller to move the ship.

    CK12 Screenshot 24-7-2.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) Nuclear submarine.

    The Drawbacks of Nuclear Energy

    The main environmental concern related to nuclear power is the creation of radioactive wastes such as uranium mill tailings, spent (used) reactor fuel, and other radioactive wastes. These materials can remain radioactive and dangerous to human health for thousands of years. Radioactive wastes are classified as low-level and high-level. By volume, most of the waste related to the nuclear power industry has a relatively low-level of radioactivity. Uranium mill tailings contain the radioactive element radium, which decays to produce radon, a radioactive gas. Most uranium mill tailings are placed near the processing facility or mill where they come from. Uranium mill tailings are covered with a barrier of material such as clay to prevent radon from escaping into the atmosphere, and they are then covered by a layer of soil, rocks, or other materials to prevent erosion of the sealing barrier.

    Spent fuel rods contain a variety of products, consisting of unstable nuclei ranging in atomic number from 25 to 60, some transuranium elements, including plutonium and americium, and unreacted uranium isotopes. The unstable nuclei and the transuranium isotopes give the spent fuel a dangerously high level of radioactivity. The long-lived isotopes require thousands of years to decay to a safe level. The ultimate fate of the nuclear reactor as a significant source of energy in the United States probably rests on whether or not a politically and scientifically satisfactory technique for processing and storing the components of spent fuel rods can be developed.

    The other types of low-level radioactive waste are the tools, protective clothing, wiping cloths, and other disposable items that get contaminated with small amounts of radioactive dust or particles at nuclear fuel processing facilities and power plants. These materials are subject to special regulations that govern their handling, storage, and disposal so they will not come in contact with the outside environment.

    High-level radioactive waste consists of spent nuclear reactor fuel (i.e., fuel that is no longer useful for producing electricity). The spent reactor fuel is in a solid form consisting of small fuel pellets in long metal tubes called rods. Spent reactor fuel assemblies are initially stored in specially designed pools of water, where the water cools the fuel and acts as a radiation shield. Spent reactor fuel assemblies can also be stored in specially designed dry storage containers. An increasing number of reactor operators now store their older spent fuel in dry storage facilities using special outdoor concrete or steel containers with air cooling. There is currently no permanent disposal facility in the United States for high-level nuclear waste.

    When a nuclear reactor stops operating, it must be decommissioned. This involves safely removing the reactor and all equipment that has become radioactive from service and reducing radioactivity to a level that permits other uses of the property. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has strict rules governing nuclear power plant decommissioning that involve cleanup of radioactively contaminated plant systems and structures, and removal of the radioactive fuel.

    A nuclear meltdown, or uncontrolled nuclear reaction in a nuclear reactor, can potentially result in widespread contamination of air and water. Some serious nuclear and radiation accidents have occurred worldwide. The most severe accident was the Chernobyl accident of 1986 in the then Soviet Union (now Ukraine) which killed 31 people directly and sickened or caused cancer in thousands more. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (2011) in Japan (Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\)) was caused by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake that shut down power supply and a tsunami that flooded the plant’s emergency power supply. This resulted in the release of radioactivity although it did not directly result in any deaths at the time of the disaster. Another nuclear accident was the Three Mile Island accident (1979) in Pennsylvania, USA. This accident resulted in a near disastrous core meltdown that was due to a combination of human error and mechanical failure but did not result in any deaths and no cancers or otherwise have been found in follow up studies of this accident. While there are potentially devastating consequences to a nuclear meltdown, the likelihood of one occurring is extremely small. After every meltdown, including the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster, new international regulations were put in place to prevent such an event from occurring again.

    A photo and a map, labeled “a” and “b,” respectively, are shown. Photo a shows a man in a body-covering safety suit working near a series of blue, plastic coated containers. Map b shows a section of land with the ocean on each side. Near the upper right side of the land is a small red dot, labeled “greater than, 12.5, m R backslash, h r,” that is surrounded by a zone of orange that extends in the upper left direction labeled “2.17, dash, 12.5, m R backslash, h r.” The orange is surrounded by an outline of yellow labeled “1.19, dash, 2.17, m R backslash, h r” and a wider outline of green labeled “0.25, dash, 1.19, m R backslash, h r.” A large area of light blue, labeled “0.03, dash, 0.25, m R backslash, h r” surrounds the green area and extends to the lower middle of the map. A large section of the lower middle and left of the land is covered by dark blue, labeled “less than 0.03, m R backslash, h r.”
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\) (a) After the accident, contaminated waste had to be removed, and (b) an evacuation zone was set up around the plant in areas that received heavy doses of radioactive fallout. (credit a: modification of work by “Live Action Hero”/Flickr)

    The processes for mining and refining uranium ore and making reactor fuel require large amounts of energy. Nuclear power plants have large amounts of metal and concrete, which also require large amounts of energy to manufacture. If fossil fuels are used for mining and refining uranium ore or in constructing the nuclear plant, then the emissions from burning those fuels could be associated with the electricity that nuclear power plants generate.

    Nuclear Reactor Design and Operation

    Video \(\PageIndex{1}\) The design and safe operation of a nuclear reactor.


    • The importance of nuclear power in generating electricity is described.
    • The operation of a nuclear power plant is described.
    • The drawbacks of nuclear energy is described.

    Contributors and Attributions

    11.9: Uses and Consequences of Nuclear Energy is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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